The new era of organizational life has ushered in critical changes in how people conceive of their careers and how organizations think about the work trajectories of their employees. Trends toward shorter relationships between individuals and the organizations in which they work have forced revised ways of thinking about the structure of careers. While the bells that toll to mark the end of the traditional career may be premature, it is impossible to ignore the need to envision different ways to define what constitutes meaningful narratives of work lives as individuals navigate a changed terrain of careers. Because individuals, rather than the organizations they work for, are responsible for their own career directions, the role of personal values has received more attention as a way to understand what guides individually directed careers.
The concept of a career as a calling speaks to the potential for congruence between individual values and the meaning derived from the various components of work that constitute a career path. Individuals who view their work as a calling see the work they do as an end in and of itself and thus are more committed to their work and less reliant on traditional career markers such as advancement and financial rewards as measures of success. Seeing one’s career as a calling offers a different model for how individuals interact with structures of work to create meaning and craft work trajectories that are based on the actual work they do, rather than on the markers of success that are traditionally associated with careers and career progress. This suggests that calling-oriented employees are more motivated and better equipped to craft their own career paths despite the complexities evident in the changing employment climate.
The Changing Shape of Careers
Changes in organizations have made linear, intraorganizational careers less common, leading organizational researchers to study the ways individuals in a range of occupations might adapt to the accompanying changes in career structures. Sociologists, psychologists, and organizational theorists have proposed that organizational changes foretell the end of the traditional career. In its place, scholars have offered models of the protean career, the boundaryless career, careers of achievement and the “new” career. Most revised models of careers suggest that employees must now improvise, enact, and construct their careers across and outside organizational boundaries. In the popular press on careers, the free agent reigns; job hopping is more common; and taking time out for reeducation and training is essential. There has been appreciably less written about how employees’ own values and goals for working operate within this context of careers and how much, if at all, employees have adapted to the changing times.
Traditionally, organizational careers have been represented by models that assume movement up a hierarchy within a single organization, with increasing responsibility and financial gain. While these linear careers may never have been as common as was believed, their decline over the past few decades has left employees in a position to create their own work trajectories to fulfill superordinate career and developmental goals. Many career scholars have argued that employees have become more entrepreneurial as a result, piecing together work experiences that focus on increased skill and a sense of control over their work experiences, while focusing less on promotions, advancement, and increasing status. Employees in this environment may seek career guidance from a wide network of relationships that are not dictated by organizational boundaries.
These changes in careers are believed to be caused by changes in organizational structures and in the psychological contracts between organizations and employees that result. Just as corporations are continually reorganizing in response to economic demands and global competition, the nature of work in organizations has become flexible to the point of becoming fragmented. Although research has suggested that individual action can affect the arrangements between employees and institutions, less is known about what guides individuals’ actions as they carry out their careers. There are primarily two schools of thought: first, that the individual can adapt to changing career structures because they match the individual’s preexisting career goals or, second, that the individual must work to adapt to career models offered the organization. A third option, in which individuals shape their own work lives through the ways in which they make meaning of work, is relatively unexplored but is gaining attention. In effect, this view suggests that in the wake of the weak situations created by organizations, with few guides for individual action, individuals are freer to enact their careers as their own creations because there are no longer strong models with clear structures to direct their career trajectories. Under such conditions, individuals are more likely to use their values, experience, knowledge, and networks to guide their work lives over time. Specifically, the values that individuals bring to their work and the subsequent meaning they make of their work is an important source of influence on how individuals think about their careers.
Individuals have been found to vary greatly in the kinds of meaning they derive from their work. Even within the same occupation, the personal meaning that different individuals attach to their work has been found to vary in ways that are systematically related to changes (even minor changes) in how they define the jobs they do. Importance is thus placed on the individual’s narrative of the work, imbued with meaning and representing a personal orientation toward work that helps to make sense of a complex career environment. One such narrative grows from the meaning individuals glean from their work when they view what they do as a calling.
Career as a Calling
The idea of viewing one’s work as a calling came into common usage with Max Weber’s concept of the Protestant work ethic. While a calling originally had religious connotations and meant doing work that God had “called” one to do, a calling in the modern sense has lost this religious connotation and is defined here as consisting of enjoyable work that is seen as making the world a better place in some way. Thus, the concept of a calling has taken on a new form in the modern era and is one of several kinds of meanings that people attach to their work. These meanings, which may be considered more broadly as work orientations, guide the process by which individuals select work, as well as how they perform the tasks included in their jobs.
The concept of work orientation is derived from a set of arguments in sociology that claim that work is subjectively experienced by individuals in one of three distinct ways: as a job, a career, or a calling. These three categories represent three different work orientations, defined as the ways in which work relates to one’s sense of oneself. Work orientation guides the types of goals individuals strive to meet through working, encompasses beliefs about the role of work in life and, as such, is reflected in work-related feelings and behaviors. The goals associated with work orientation have implications for how individuals conduct themselves in relation to their work. Therefore, work orientation is a useful lens through which to understand what individuals are searching for in their careers. Prior research has shown that each type of work orientation can be found both across and within various occupations and that individuals are unambiguous in reporting that they experience their work as a job, career, or calling. To address the implications of seeing one’s career as a calling, it is first necessary to define and explore job and career orientations to work.
Each work orientation is associated with the kinds of goals individuals pursue in their work lives. Thus, those with a job orientation toward work are primarily interested in the material benefits from work and do not seek many other types of rewards from it. The work is not an end in itself, but instead is a means for acquiring the resources needed to enjoy time away from the job. In essence, the main goal of those with job orientations is to make an income, and leisure is kept separate from work.
In contrast to those with a job orientation, employees with a career orientation are more personally invested in their work and tend to mark their achievements not only through monetary gain but also through advancement within the occupational structure. This advancement often brings higher social standing and self-esteem, as well as increased power within the scope of one’s occupation. Thus, the goal of the career oriented is to increase income, social status, power, and prestige in their occupations, whether within or between organizations. For example, a career-oriented middle manager may strive to become a vice president, or a young attorney may strive to make partner in a law firm.
By contrast, a calling-oriented middle manager or attorney works not for advancement but for the fulfillment that the work brings. Specifically, people with a calling orientation tend to view their work as inseparable from the rest of their lives. Individuals with callings are not working for material rewards or career advancement but instead view the work as an end in itself. The goal of those with callings is to gain deep fulfillment from doing work that they view as having a positive impact on the wider world. Most popular examples of calling orientations come from the arts or helping professions (e.g., medicine, social work), as many individuals in these occupations are compelled to do expressive work or to be of service to others. Traditionally, job and calling orientations have been thought of as representing opposite extremes of the same dimension. If one has a strong calling orientation, it is unlikely that a strong job orientation would also be present, given the focus on intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation to perform one’s work.
The notion of a career as a calling is supported by research that shows that any kind of work can be a viewed as a calling. Work orientation is essentially the frame of meaning applied to the work one does; thus, it is possible to do the same work and view it quite differently based on which orientation is applied to the work. For example, a computer programmer can view the work as a way to make a paycheck (job orientation), as a way to move into project management and infrastructure design on the way to securing a director-level position (career orientation), or as a way to carry out the enjoyable, fulfilling work of programming that is seen as contributing to knowledge management and creation in the wider world (calling orientation). The calling-oriented programmer is much more likely to thrive in a work world in which career structures are increasingly complex, sequential, and unpredictable, because a calling orientation provides a life narrative to the work that is both deeply meaningful and less reliant on the external career structures of the organization. Thus, calling-oriented individuals are more protected from the episodic and uncertain nature of career progression in organizations, whereas those with career orientations are perhaps most exposed to the changes in organizations that make advancement less certain. Like the calling oriented, the job oriented are also protected from both traditional and modern career structures in organizations, for they are working for pay and little more and thus do not need to impose broader goals for advancement on the work they do. However, in contrast to the job oriented, calling-oriented individuals gain a deeper source of meaning and fulfillment from work, which creates a deeper bond to the work itself. Although those with calling orientations value doing work for the meaning that the work represents, clearly, the financial rewards of work hold some importance for them. However, these rewards are subordinate to the meaning that doing the work itself brings to the person. Work orientations are not mutually exclusive, but instead represent the relative importance to individual employees of their reasons for working.
Implications of a Calling Orientation for Modern Careers
Viewing one’s work as a calling has been shown to be related to a number of positive outcomes for both employees and their employers. Calling-oriented individuals report higher job and life satisfaction, even after controlling for income, level of education, and occupation, than people who view their work as jobs or careers. These employees also report higher work motivation and are less likely to regret their choice of occupations. Individuals who feel called to perform their work also report greater occupational commitment and enthusiasm and are more likely to create new tasks, responsibilities, and approaches to their work. Such new approaches to the work infuse the work with deeper meaning and may help organizations to more effectively meet their goals.
Individuals with callings appear to be at an advantage given today’s changing career environment. Modern careers require individuals to interact with changing career structures to fulfill their goals for working. Thus, work orientation, specifically a calling orientation, offers continuity to work trajectories at a time when work histories are more fragmented. Calling orientations endow both the individuals who adhere to them and the organizations that employ such individuals with positive outcomes that flow from a deeper connection to the work and a stronger passion for the activity of performing job tasks. Thus, a calling orientation provides a possible answer to the question of how narratives of identity and life history will be derived in a changing society in which careers are increasingly made up of episodes and fragments. For individuals with calling orientations, a relatively stable set of goals can be pursued in their work that could be expected to persist within, between, and beyond specific jobs.
In this sense, a calling orientation shares some elements with the factors that constitute a protean career orientation, such as the extent to which decisions regarding one’s careers are based on personal values versus financial or other extrinsic factors. It follows that individuals who are more attached to the intrinsic nature of the work itself, those with a calling versus job or career orientation, are more likely to take whatever steps are necessary to continue along their preferred paths, what scholars have referred to as the “path with a heart.” Indeed, ongoing research in the area of careers has begun to focus on the role of meaning and values in the context of changing career structures. The promise of career as a calling is but one direction that this work has taken, offering an alternative path for understanding the responses individuals could have to a work world in which careers are the responsibility of the employee.
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